Morning Briefing

Panic Time in Wolfsburg

President Barack Obama bid farewell to his fans and followers in a moving speech last night. He thanked them for their passionate support, which catapulted a little-known senator from Illinois into the world’s most powerful leader. “You made me a better president; you made me a better man,” he told them. The two-term president doesn’t leave behind a blinding record of success but a sense of melancholy. His call to change the world and make it better wasn’t followed because the world refuses to better itself.

The FBI is closing in on Volkswagen. Handelsblatt has learned the Feds have questioned several VW employees as expert witnesses to learn which top executives knew of the emissions-cheating software, and when. The Wolfsburg headquarters is in a state of emergency – seemingly calm on the outside, freaking out on the inside.

The FBI’s efforts unearthed a smoking gun from Oliver Schmidt, VW’s former chief emissions control officer in the United States, who was arrested in Miami on Saturday. Referring to the fraudulent technology at the heart of the scandal, Schmidt apparently warned superiors in Germany more than a year before the diesel fumes hit the fan. “We should decide whether we are going to be honest. If we are not going to be honest, then everything stays as it is,” Schmidt wrote in an email to a colleague in Wolfsburg in April 2014. That was nearly 18 months before Martin Winterkorn stepped down as CEO, claiming no knowledge of the fiasco. But because VW apparently opted for the principle of dishonesty, nothing is staying as it is.

In the wake of Berlin’s Christmas terror attack, the government is tightening security. New measures include electronic ankle tags on potential terrorists, faster deportations of rejected asylum seekers and pressure on countries that refuse to take back their illegal aliens living in Germany. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziére and Justice Minister Heiko Maas said they overcame political differences in Angela Merkel’s right-left coalition to deliver the package. The pact, they claimed, showed the coalition is capable of making “sensible’’ decisions in difficult times. But we could actually use a government that can also make sensible decisions when the times aren’t difficult too.

What are the key threats to the West? Growing income inequality is one,  along with polarization of societies fearing mass migration and loss of cultural identity. These aren’t views of a left-wing party but of the World Economic Forum, in its new Global Risk Report 2017.  The experts huddled around Davos patriarch Klaus Schwab are urging the Western elite not to fight the populists, but the causes of their populism. The report’s bottom line: “A reform of market capitalism also belongs on the agenda.”

The son-in-law of President-elect Donald Trump is joining the White House staff as a senior advisor. Despite some legal concerns, we should view Jared Kushner’s appointment as encouraging. New York’s liberal mayor, Bill de Blasio, has called Kushner “sensible” and “moderate.” Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the United States who has met frequently with Kushner, thinks he’s intelligent and balanced. If there’s anything we can say at this point about the approaching Trump era, it’s that it won’t be short on contradictions.

Former German President Roman Herzog passed away yesterday. His name will forever be associated with political clarity. Herzog wanted to serve his country, not tell it what it wanted to hear. He thought about Germany’s future, not his own reelection.

The “ossification of society” and “an incredible mental depression” are unforgettable diagnoses from Herzog’s 1997 speech on Germany in crisis: “Our political, business, media and social leaders may recognize what is right. But I don’t have the sense they are able or willing to put their insights into practice.” Every German should read this call to be provocative — to others and to ourselves. Herzog has left us, but the ossification of our society has not.

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